life of music and a philosophy to live by
by Bonnie Williamson
photos by Tony Cooper
Nancy Harbert Ellsworth has lived and continues to live an extraordinary life. She was a child prodigy on the violin, beginning to play as a toddler, and subsequently dedicating her life to music. She decided in her golden years – 85 – to write a book about her experiences and her music. It also includes advice for ways to lead a more fulfilling life for everyone, not just musicians. Still, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’ve had music in my life from an early age,” Nancy says.
Born and raised in Stockton, Ca., Nancy’s mother Wilhelmina Harbert was a singer and pianist. One day, her mother’s friend Anne Eichorn, a classical violinist, came for a visit. Nancy listened intently to her playing. She happened to have a small violin with her and said as a joke, “Let’s see what the baby can do,” handing Nancy the violin. “I was fascinated. I held on to it and imitated her. Eichorn then said to my mother, ‘Give this child proper lessons.’ And she did,” Nancy says.
She took violin lessons at the College of the Pacific, giving her first solo recital at the age of 4. She continued to study music and perform while attending the Stockton public school system. She played with the college orchestra at age 11.
Nancy’s says her most influential teachers in her earliest years include Lucie Bruch, Horace Brown, Naoum Blinder and Darius Milhaud. When she was a freshman at Mills College in Oakland, World War II started.
“I’ve always believed in the randomness of life,” she says. “So many plans and lives were ruined by the war. That’s why I believe in the necessity of imagination in life. It keeps you going.”
When she graduated, she had the opportunity to play for one of the world’s most prominent concert violinists, Efram Zimbalist. Zimbalist invited her to come to Philadelphia and study at The Curtis Institute, known for being one of the finest music conservatories in the world. Nancy went on to play for the Denver Symphony and Pittsburgh Symphony. While with the Pittsburgh Symphony, she met her husband Mark Ellsworth. Her husband was the youngest violinist to ever play with the symphony, joining when he was only 17.
Mark became the concert master at the National Gallery Orchestra and opened the first Ellsworth Music Studio in Bethesda, Md. When the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, Nancy became the first concert master of the Opera House Orchestra. She played for many great leaders of opera, symphony and ballet, including Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski.
“Both Stokowski and Bernstein were wonderful conductors. They had different styles. I thoroughly enjoyed playing for both men,” says Nancy. Nancy remained with the Kennedy Center for 25 years, retiring in 1996.
Nancy and her husband had five children and were married for 35 years before his death in 1987. The family has grown to 10 grandchildren and five great grandchildren, all of whom have an interest in music. Nancy moved to Shepherdstown in 1987. She lives with her son Brian, a French horn player, and his family.
Brian and his wife Sylvia opened Ellsworth Music Supply and Repair in Shepherdstown and Charles Town in 2000 and 2002. There is now one large store at the Potomac Market Place Shopping Center, located off Route 9 in Ranson.
Along the way, Nancy became more involved with writing.
“I was always writing short essays and observations. I kept a basketful of notes. The idea for the book started to percolate in my mind. I realized I could say something. Perhaps I’ve lived long enough to have something to say,” she says. The result of her efforts is Music- Maker, The Power of Change, a book she self-published in March. She had a highly successful book signing in May at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown.
“I don’t use a computer or a typewriter. I write in longhand. I don’t think well with the computer. I think it’s because I’m more tactile since I play the violin. I wanted to do something with my own hands,” she says.
Nancy’s book encourages people, not just musicians, to approach life and the daily tasks of life in different ways.
“It’s not just a how-to book for musicians,” she says. Some of her recommendations include Acts of Freedom in Performance. Some of the points include:
- Observe yourself as you play. A mirror will help you check points of posture and movement.
- Think of new ways to perform old gestures. Research methods that show you how to use your entire body as you play.
- Enlist help from a knowledgeable player—one whose style you admire; observe and listen.
- Accept the unknown—take a chance on new ways to hold the bow, strike the keys, control your breath.
“I don’t like the word practice. It has a negative meaning. People can associate practicing an instrument like they do going to the dentist.
You’re playing, not practicing,” Nancy says.
In her book she recommends using new words for old labels:
- “I have to practice today” – better said – “I need to play today.”
- Free yourself to be positive.
- Act under the notion of good.
- Hear the worth in your product.
Nancy says she frequently is asked why “the power to change” is part of her book’s title.
“How I’ve practiced my craft, my approach to playing, could be applied to anything. Resolve to change. Recognize that you can. Actions on decisions, large and small, allow you to make revisions you desire. That is your power.
Believe in your power. Believe in yourself,” she says.
She continues, “It may not be that you do not need to change as much as you need to know that you can. Change may be those small moves and large decisions that infuse behavior and meaning. They motivate you to allow and practice the changes you desire. That is your power. Use it.”
As she was working on the book, she would read it to Mason, her 25- year-old grandson, who is recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Mason was a talented bassoonist before being injured in a traffic accident several years ago.
Nancy continues her work as a professional coach and teacher. The fact that she is approaching her 91st birthday in September has not slowed her down.
“Have the courage to take action. Action makes progress possible. Start a new project. Do something that brings you satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment. Find out what joy is all about. Feel it. There’s that old expression ‘if you have lemons, make lemonade.’ There’s always a payoff. Look for it,” she says.